A harsh realization

Pristine wilderness locations are suffering from over-visitation, partially due to geotagging on social media platforms

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Ty Newcomb has started tagging his photos with generic locations, like Colorado, in order to help preserve some of the wild places he photographs.
Ty Newcomb (@eye.of.ty)

Opening up Instagram, my feed is flooded with images of breathtaking locations from around the world. From oceans to mountains, from wedding photographers to rock climbers, the pictures create a sense of wanderlust. Luckily, for me and other Instagram users, finding these incredible locations has been made easy with geotagging, the simple process of adding a location to the photograph. Users are able to click the location and see a map, pinpointing the exact coordinates of each location. 

But as a result, the secluded and pristine wilderness locations going viral on social media platforms, especially Instagram, are suffering from over-visitation, disrespect and damage. In response, some influential Instagrammers are consciously limiting their use of geotags in order to protect and preserve the locations they share with the world. 

Ty Newcomb, a photographer based out of Boulder, has been traveling as an Instagram influencer for the past three years. On his Instagram, (@eye.of.ty,) which has 179,000 followers, he has recently taken a step back from revealing exactly where places are via geotags, instead marking photos with general tags like “Utah” or “California.” 

“Some of the places I visited just a few months ago that were completely desolate are now suddenly flooded with people and look wildly different from how they did before social media blew their cover,” Newcomb says. “I’ve seen trash in secluded and remote areas, people ignoring permit systems for trails and backcountry camping, Instagram names carved into rocks and trees along trails and at popular photo spots.”

Newcomb faced a harsh realization when it occurred to him that he was contributing to the influx of people visiting places based on what they saw online. 

“If you go on social media you’ll see so many people who say they love nature and the outdoors, but really don’t properly take care of or appreciate these places that are so often incredibly fragile ecosystems when they visit,” Newcomb says. “People hopping barriers and fences, trampling on delicate vegetation and cryptobiotic soil all in order to get slightly better photo perspectives. It’s incredibly frustrating and gives every other photographer a bad image and name.”

Local governments and federal agencies are also trying to raise awareness over the harm geotagging can bring to an area. In late 2018, the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board began a campaign urging visitors to tag their photos responsibly, creating the location tag, “Tag Responsibly, Keep Jackson Hole Wild,” for visitors to use when sharing pictures from the area. 

Colorado itself is experiencing over-visitation in some of the state’s most loved locations.

Hanging Lake is a hike right outside of Glenwood Springs. About a mile up the side of a mountain, hikers stumble upon a crystal blue lake backed by waterfalls. The city of Glenwood Springs and the U.S. Forest Service have implemented a permit system in order to protect the fragile ecosystem of the lake, as it has been suffering from an influx of visitors. The new system caps the number of visitors at 615 per day. According to the U.S. Forest Service, around 1,000 people were visiting the lake per day last year. 

“We want to share a story that there’s a lot of places to experience that aren’t just the popular posts seen on social media,” Phillip Yates, spokesperson for the City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks, says. “It’s a balancing act. Social media is a great tool to motivate and get people outdoors, and it promotes inclusivity in the outdoors, but we also need the support and encouragement of the public to help preserve and protect our wildlife and plant habitats.”

There is not a simple solution to over-visitation, and in many ways it’s more about how people take care of the places they are visiting than it is how many people visit. However, removing geotags from photos on social media seems to be a step in the right direction. 

“It’s not that I don’t want people visiting our parks and pristine wilderness locations,” Newcomb says. “But sadly, it seems your average person has no idea how to visit nature and wilderness without making a mess of the place and expecting janitors to come clean it up. So yeah, if you want to visit the spots I visit now, you have to work for it a bit more.”